Ever written a to-do list?
You’d be pretty unusual if you hadn’t.
It’s one of my favourite things – who doesn’t love the little dopamine buzz of crossing something off a list? – but my own to-do list style has evolved and changed over time. I’ve tried all kinds of styles and tricks, and reviewed some of the many many ways of using to-do lists until I’ve found the one that works for me. And I’ll change that if a better idea comes along.
For example, I always used a notebook and paper until I discovered Scrivener, a tool created for writers, but which works brilliantly for holding projects or multiple lists. On the other hand, I still frequently refer back to my dogeared copy of the bible of organisation, Getting Things Done by David Allen, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in a more organised and productive life.
I’m a bit of a list-ninja (multiple checklists anyone?), but thought I’d outline the key principles behind all the styles of list I’ve experimented with. I hope these tips help you to simplify your life and lists, and create a more productive life for you. I would LOVE you to share your own ‘to-do list tips’ in the comments below – I’m always open to trying new things!
1. Be clear, be specific. Ensure every item on your to-do list is an action that can be completed. Avoid vague statements that are just the name of the project, or person. Write what it is you need to do, so that when it comes to using the list, all you have to do is complete the action, rather than brainstorming what the next action is. For example, instead of ‘holiday’, write ‘check I can have the week of the 7th July off work’ etc.
2. Ensure everything you need to do is gathered in one place – but have more than one category on your list if it helps. I have a daily to-do list containing the actions for that day, but I also have a list for each ‘big’ project I am doing, so I know what the next step is. But everything is in the same Scrivener file. Avoid having actions scattered throughout a notebook or digital devices – this makes it very easy to miss things. If you write actions down in a meeting, transfer these onto a master list once you are done. At the least, make sure you highlight actions in your meeting notes to differentiate them from general notes.
3. Be clear about the difference between your own actions and more ‘passive’ list items, where you are waiting for someone else to do something. These are really better as reminders in your calendar, telling you when the other person’s action is due. Alternatively, you can create a separate column containing just these items (yes, I have a ‘waiting for’ list). Otherwise, they become a psychological weight as you can’t tick them off, but equally, you can’t do anything about them.
4. Use your diary. As well as noting passive items, use your diary to ‘store’ longer term actions – don’t have something on your to-do list AND in your diary unless it’s actually happening that day. Otherwise you will feel as if you have a lot more to do than necessary.
5. Build in flexibility. Make sure you know approximately how long each action will take, and on your daily to-do list, put down items that take you to approximately 15-20% under the time you need. So, for example, if you have eight hours in your working day, only write on your day’s to-do list enough items to fill six of those hours. Some activities will take more time than you think, and you will also have unplanned interruptions, emergencies, maybe even the odd unexpected coffee with a friend. Make life easier by not planning up to or above the hours in the day – it’s always depressing when you have only completed one item on your day’s to do list and it’s time to go home or to bed.
6. Prioritise. Perhaps the most important tip. Spend 5-10 minutes at the end of the day deciding on items for the next day, but go further, and number these in the order you will approach them. Put an easier/quicker action in between longer ones, to give you the satisfaction of completing things. But don’t put all the easy things first!
What are the key principles behind your own to-do list? How do you keep sane and productive?
Share your ideas and thoughts in the comments below.